“Rappel – to descend (as from a cliff) by sliding down a rope passed under one thigh, across the body, and over the opposite shoulder or through a special friction device.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
In the last post I presented the travails of Darrell Seyler as told by Peter Frick-Wright in the September 2015 issue of Outside magazine where Darrell was absolutely certain that Forrest Fenn’s treasure was in a small cave up the side of a cliff in Yellowstone National Park. Getting to that cave was a problem in that the easiest, if not the only, way was to rappel down from above. After a few failed tries by Mr. Seyler and a friend, neither of whom, having never read the dictionary, knew anything of how to rappel except that it required a rope (which they had bought in a local hardware store). These attempts were what occasioned one of the “lost it” episodes mentioned by Mr. Frick-Wright: he had followed Mr. Seyler through the snow and found him with his head against a rock and his new rope tangled in his snowshoes, crying.
On a far different scale is the 65’ rappel made by Aron Ralston in 2003. Mr. Ralston, you will remember, went alone into one of Utah’s most famous slot canyons, scrambled over a near 1000 pound chock stone which dislodged, rolled a bit, and pinned his hand to the canyon wall. After a week or so trapped in which he lost 40 pounds, he decided that the only way to keep from dying in that lonely place was to cut off his own forearm, which he did with a dull knife and a twist of the arm to break the bones. He then hiked down the canyon, which ended in the now famous 65’ rappel that he made, mind you, with a recently severed arm, more than a week of little sleep, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink except his own urine.
And then there is me.
My friends and I had decided that what we needed was a course in rock climbing so we went off to the nearest army surplus store where I bought a parka-like jacket that formerly belonged to the 10th Mountain Corps, a climbing rope, and several pitons and carabiners, parts of which I still have. What I remember of the course some 55 years later, is the final exam: a day-long trip to climb the “Maiden”—an awkward looking thumb of rock that juts out from the flatirons south of Boulder, Colorado.
The climb we made consists of seven “technical” pitches between 5.0 and 5.6 difficulty—not all that bad except that things can get a bit “airey” by which I mean, it is best to keep nose to rock and not look down to keep from getting jumpy leg—a sure sign that you are about to peel off.
If you look at the photo, the first pitch is to get to where that fellow is standing (about a third of the way up on the left); the second goes down to the bottom of the notch (center, bottom) known as the “Crow’s Nest” (we renamed it “First Bounce”); the third and fourth pitches (yellow)take you around to the left and back and up the north face; and the fifth is on the east face which will get you to the top.
The way back down is a whole lot more interesting: a 120’ free rappel which leaves you at the end of your rope and just to the right of the “First Bounce” so that you need to get enough of a pendulum swing going to get you over to where you belong. Then you retrieve your rope, hook up again and take off to the right in another 120’ “normal” rappel that gets you to the base.
Now, Boulder is a super fit, outdoorsy city which means that the “Maiden” is climbed by hundreds of people every year and I have little doubt that some of them could do all of it during a coffee break. It took me a bit longer.
The climb itself was a piece of cake; after all, I had just spent a couple of years in the army doing pushups. Getting down from that young lady, however, was something else altogether.
It goes like this. When it is your turn to come off the top you get into your harness, snap your rope through a carabiner hooked to your harness, and attach your rope to a piece of hardware that has been there, like, forever. Trying to pay no attention to all the talk from your friends about “First Bounce,” you back off the thing until your feet dangle in the air and you are good to go. Except I didn’t.
I hung there unable to go up or down because in all that excitement my new rope had picked up the tail of my new parka and pulled it through my new carabiner where it got stuck.
So I hung there while my friends on top argued over what to do. They decided to send down a knife and then they argued over whose knife was to be sent down because it had to be the sharpest but this argument moved into a 10 minute discussion of the best way to sharpen a knife.
Then, miracle of miracles, an open Swiss Army Knife dangling from a rope appeared in front of my face. But I didn’t have a free hand to use it since one hand hung onto the rope in front of me to keep me from tipping over backward and the other was responsible for keeping the right amount of rope on back friction that would eventually allow me to continue. This dilemma was then discussed by my friends on top while I enjoyed the magnificent view one has from where I was sitting.
They decided that even though I was right handed (the one adjusting the rope/back friction), I should slowly release my death grip on the rope in front of me, slide my wrist and then my forearm across the rope so that tension would be maintained, then hook my elbow around the rope, grab the knife with my now free left hand and dock the tail off my new parka.
In a couple of minutes of sawing, my new parka became a used parka and I
went on my merry way. I reached “First Bounce,” did the pendulum thing, landed upright, retrieved my rope, hooked it to another bolt some nice people had provided and backed off to the next 120’ rappel—the easiest and most enjoyable rappel I have ever made. Back in town they made me buy the beer.
There are four things we learn from these three stories:
- Read the damn dictionary!
- Remind me if you have heard this one before: Tell a resonably sound and attentave friend just where it is you are going and when you will get back. Take a damn whistle!
- Do it wrong and you buy the beer.
- Forrest Fenn didn’t do no rappell to hide gold and jewelry just so you could buy beer either.
Stay strong, r/
Aron Roylston. 2004. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Simon and Schuster.
Peter Frick-Wright. 2015. “Casch X Money.” Outside September.